The Monkman Pass Route: An idea whose time has come again?

Charles Helm

 

Living in a Global Geopark means not just enjoying the rocks and fossils, but being connected to the land and appreciating how its history has shaped us, then turning those connections into something positive for the community and region.

One local resident to whom this idea comes naturally is Thomas Clark. Ever since he and his wife Jennifer moved here in 2008, he has thrown himself into the volunteer activities of the Wolverine Nordic & Mountain Society (WNMS) and the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation (TRMF), and become immersed in the area’s fascinating history. He maintains and builds hiking trails, he removes deadfall, he explores and makes discoveries, he built and stocked the wood shed for skiers at Lost Haven Cabin, and he is now healthily obsessed with a massive project – the re-creation of the Monkman Pass Highway route between the BC-Alberta border and Kinuseo Falls.

The legendary saga of how Alberta’s grain farmers built a road through our mountains in the late 1930s has been told many times. How, faced with government indifference to their pleas to construct a rail route for their grain, they refused to lie down, and tried to build a highway route for their grain products instead. Against all odds they almost succeeded, and only the outbreak of World War II put a stop to their efforts. Otherwise, the road to Prince George today would likely go past Kinuseo Falls and over the Monkman Pass, and would shave two hours off our driving time.

Over the last few years the WNMS and TRMF have, with the support of BC Rec Sites and Trails, opened up two three-kilometre sections of the old route at Stony Lake and Kruger’s Flats, and have promoted this precious history through signage and brochures, and a driving tour from Grande Prairie to Kinuseo Falls via Tumbler Ridge. Working with BC Parks, a hiking route deep into the mountains has been developed, leading to spectacular alpine scenery above the Monkman Pass. Kreg Alde of Beaverlodge has spearheaded these initiatives, and a big sign outside our Visitor Centre acknowledges all the work that went into this.

Now Thomas’ ambitions potentially take this a huge step further. The Monkman Pass route, he says, was made to be travelled as a whole, not just visited in pieces. He believes that hikers, ATVers, horse riders and sledders will enjoy the opportunity to travel in the footsteps of the pioneers over the seventy kilometres from the border to the falls.

Fortunately for Thomas there is good news. Firstly, there is no longer government indifference. Secondly, parts of the old route are now roads of varying degrees of quality and use. Thirdly, aerial photos in the Museum Archives taken in the 1960s identify the remaining portions of the old route with great accuracy, especially when viewed through stereoscopic glasses and combined with a look at Google Earth.

There are portions of the old highway where it looks as if nothing has happened in the past 75 years, where one can almost imagine the original tire tracks and expect a Model A Ford to come around the corner. Places where the original corduroy can be seen, or the cuts made by plough and scoop. Where such monuments exist, Thomas will divert the new trail around them so that they can continue to be appreciated undamaged. Elsewhere alders have grown in and present a tough obstacle, but not tough enough to deter Thomas’ plans.

A Global Geopark is all about making partnerships happen. This project has the potential to bring a number of local groups together with a common goal. Thomas has already met with Gordie Graham of the ATV club to discuss common approaches (the shared use by hikers and ATVers of the Kruger’s Flats section already provides a good model of co-operation). Kreg Alde and others from Beaverlodge who cherish their Monkman Pass history have pledged their support. And a partnership with BC Rec Sites and Trails and BC Parks will be essential in moving ahead.

Alex Monkman and his supporters had a powerful vision in the 1930s, and they tried their best to make it reality. Three quarters of a century later Thomas Clark and his helpers have their own vision, and it involves celebrating the achievements of those heroic pioneers, connecting us to their toil and their aspirations by walking or riding on the trail they left behind. And this aligns perfectly with the vision and activities of the Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark. Such projects do not happen overnight, and Thomas and his team will likely spend many years in the bush bringing this project to fruition. But there is nothing in the world more powerful than a bunch of passionate volunteers.